“If a library is a mirror of the universe, then a catalogue is a mirror of that mirror.” – Alberto Manguel
One of the best parts about exploring library shelves is discovering unexpected gems – finding a book that you didn’t know existed, you didn’t know you needed. It can change the course of your research, it can introduce you to a new favorite author, it can unsettle you in strange and wonderful ways.
This is the philosophy behind the Warburg Institute in London. Aby Warburg originally created the library in Germany based on his personal collection before moving it to London with Fritz Saxl (see warburg.sas.ac.uk/home/about-the-institute for more information). He believed in the “good neighbor” idea: that the information you want isn’t found in the book you are looking for, but the one next to it.
This creative thinking led to the unconventional classification of books in the Warburg Institute. Instead of being organized by traditional numerical or alphabetical systems, Warburg organized his library, as many of us do, by his interests. The Institute follows this method in its aim to promote connections.
Here is its categorization scheme:
As the website explains, the system, “structures culture and expression under four large categories, image, word, orientation and action (corresponding to the four floors of stacks above the reading room)…. Its detailed organisation makes inspired connections between different fields of endeavour and study. Readers’ access to the open shelves of the library leads them to books which they would not otherwise find, while the unique arrangement of the sections enables them also to make more intuitive connections.”
As libraries are in the process of redefining themselves in this electronic age, I think that the philosophy behind the Warburg Institute serves as a good reminder: there are so many fun and creative ways to reconsider how we categorize information and books.
Next time you’re in a library, pick up the book next to the one you want. You never know what you’ll find…
(information and photos from Warburg Institute website: http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/home/)